Supreme Court to put documents online in transparency push

Briggs: Extended public scrutiny

The Supreme Court is to publish court documents online alongside live streaming of its hearings in a bid to improve transparency, Lord Briggs has revealed.

Lord Briggs, Supreme Court justice and author of the Briggs report which called for the creation of an online court in 2016, said transparency could be “diminished by digitalisation and modernisation primarily designed to make litigation quicker and more affordable”.

He said that under the “old system” of justice, all witness evidence and submissions to the court were made orally and in public, so members of the public were “as well informed as the judge”. The level of public scrutiny which resulted was “unique in Europe”.

Since then, most court documents were “pre-read” by judges and counsel’s submissions were in writing, with case management hearings taking place remotely.

Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum conference on court modernisation yesterday, Lord Briggs said the situation now was that an academic or member of the public who walked into a court “loses contact with what is going on in a matter of minutes”.

He warned that, despite everyone being committed to oral hearings for full trials, the move to online “has not finished yet” and “oral processes will not grow but shrink further”.

Lord Briggs said the first step in putting back the transparency that had been lost was likely to be the “live online transmission of documents during hearings” at the Supreme Court, which could be read as proceedings took place.

Documents could also be made available in advance, so “serious members of the public could pre-read documents at the same time as judges”.

He went on: “My ambition would be that this will extend to most of the digital documents that judges read for a hearing.” Documents which could not be released fully, for reasons of confidentiality or because they involved children, could be redacted.

Lord Briggs said the “long-term objective” was that someone watching the case in Canada with two screens, one for the hearing the other for the documents, would have as much access to the proceedings as the judges in the court.

“It will bring back the ability for public scrutiny, but to a greatly extended audience. That scrutiny will be available worldwide.”

As well as being a means of “promoting and advertising” what the courts did in the UK, it would have the “long-term benefit” of helping maintain the “pre-eminent position” of British justice on the world stage.

Lord Briggs added that including documents as part of its online streaming was part of the Supreme Court’s change programme, which was “fully budgeted and Treasury-approved”.

Earlier in the session Lord Justice Birss, deputy head of civil justice, said uniform data standards, which applied both to courts and pre-action portals, “could transform access to justice in the future”.

For example, he said that if courts had access to high-level management information on a “big pulse of cases” in the portals, they could prepare for it.

Being able to see patterns across the justice system “which we can’t see at the moment” could enable judges to gauge the impact of a rule change, without having to “run a costly pilot for every modest proposal”.

Jenny George, director of justice value-for-money at the National Audit Office (NAO), said that, following the extension in the deadline for completion of the court reform programme to March 2024, some “important areas” were still in their early development stages.

Several other projects had been “paused”, meaning that HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) was “delivering less for the same budget, reducing value for money”.

In a highly critical report on the modernisation programme published in February, the NAO accused HMCTS of putting delivery “at pace” before “sustainable change”.

Ms George said HMCTS tended to deliver “minimum viable functionality” on a project, and then immediately go live, even if the work was not finished.

Another problem was “capturing the cost” of the reform programme, as improvements to divorce processes would be funded by the family courts and to criminal prosecution processes by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Ms George added that the programme had promised to delvier £2.3bn in lifetime savings, which in 2022 was cut to £2bn, and, with the “reset” of the end date to 2024, was likely to reduce further.

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